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This Is Why You Don’t Know Yourself
It isn’t your fault, but it’s your responsibility to change.
Originally published in Mind Cafe on June 7, 2021.
Can’t even choose a hair color… like what?
I don’t know what I want anymore.
After I get a pay raise, I want to work harder. After I win a Jiu-Jitsu tournament, I want to go all-in on my “real life Dragon Ball” dream and sleep on a mat chasing world titles for a living. After I write something I’m proud of, I want to move to a cabin in the woods and become the next Hunter S. Thompson — minus all the cocaine, of course.
My problem isn’t that I have no interests or even that I have too many interests. My problem is that I’m chasing the dopamine. I just want to go wherever I’m going to feel the best, and because I do so many different things, the thing that makes me feel best is always changing. I’m more impulsive and less self-aware than I thought I was, and external influences like my family, peers, and of course, social media really aren’t helping me figure it out.
But a false sense of self-awareness isn’t just my problem, either. There’s research that suggests that close to 80% of people lack true self-awareness, though 95% of people believe they’re self-aware. Obviously, the laboratory definition of self-awareness isn’t everything, but it’s still a compelling figure that leads to an important question: are you like “most people”? Is your self-awareness a lie?
You probably won’t want to admit it, but it’s very easy to fake emotional intelligence and self-awareness without even realizing that the one you’re fooling most is yourself. In a world that’s devoid of deep meaning and a true encouragement for spiritual connection, are you “Tyler Dryden-ing” yourself to survive the day?
What Do You Really Want?
If you don’t know what you really want, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, however, you’re also going to be highly susceptible to the influence of people around you, emerging technology, and worse of all your own biochemical brainwashing. When it comes to external influencing, lost minds are the same as weak minds.
Most of the kids that I grew up with are for the most part following a very similar track in their early twenties. Most of them went to college, got degrees, went to a lot of football games, drank obscene amounts of cheap beer, and now are either getting Master’s degrees or working corporate jobs. I don’t have hard data on this, but if you’d like, I can show you my LinkedIn connections list.
But why is everyone doing the “same thing”? Could it be because they all want the same thing? Am I wrong in thinking that most people are lying to themselves about what they want out of life?
It’s completely possible. I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about growth, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. However, I’m also fairly certain that there’s a lack of introspection that happens amongst young people, and so it doesn’t really surprise me that many people are funneling themselves through life following “traditional” paths that correlate to high rates of burnout and chronic mental illness.
But unfortunately, high rates of professional burnout are caused by a much deeper and more complex conundrum than just a lack of introspection. It’s going to take more than a week off or a spiritual retreat to really get to know yourself, especially because getting to know yourself today is harder than it’s ever been.
It’s Getting Harder to Know Yourself
When you imagine your identity, what words come to mind?
I’ll go first: I’m a white, heterosexual man, a son, an ADHD person, a copywriter, a writer, an athlete, a teacher, and a martial artist. This might sound like a lot of (albeit not very diverse) hats, but really these are just words that I use in order to help my peers and me understand my place in the world. In reality, these words don’t mean anything about my level of self-awareness or how well I “know myself”. It takes no self-awareness to label yourself.
It might sound corny, but true inner self-awareness goes far beyond the confines of language and social understanding. It’s also really hard to attain.
I’ll make a bold claim: most people don’t know themselves.
Part of the reason why could be because modern society does not encourage introspection and writes it off as “hippie liberal mumbo jumbo”, but really the root of a lack of cultural self-awareness goes much deeper than the toxic, over-complained about hustle culture.
Perhaps the real reason that it’s so difficult to know yourself in the modern world is that there is just too much that you can be. To make matters more complicated, many parts of your identity are socially constructed both by you and your peers. The world around you is always changing (now faster than ever), and so is your identity.
The crisis comes when these identity evolutions are happening too fast for our brains to fully comprehend. The human mind evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, what makes you think you can figure yours out in a day, week, or even year?
The Reason to Play the Game Is to Be Free of It
The biggest philosophical lesson that I’ve learned in the past 6 months is that the “self” as we know it is an illusion. I freakin’ love this idea.
In Western culture, we’re obsessed with self-awareness and self-discovery. This seems great, but really, we’re obsessed with something that doesn’t even exist outside of the confines of consensual human fiction. Our obsession with identity as a concept is both an individual and societal roadblock that is blocking humanity from reaching a collectively higher rate of “self-awareness”, happiness, and perhaps even spiritual evolution.
The confines of what constitutes an identity are always changing. For example, if you asked a farmer from the 1500s to “identify himself”, he’d have far fewer determining aspects of himself to choose from and even fewer aspirations. People just didn’t have the same options for self-expression in the 1500s as someone does today.
This does not make the farmer from 1500 more self-aware or less self-aware. If anything, it means that he was playing the self-awareness game with a multitude of missing pieces. The answer says more about the game than the player. Perhaps today, we are playing the same self-awareness game with so many pieces that we’ve gotten distracted from the reason that we started playing in the first place — to improve the human condition.
Human beings come in all shapes, sizes, genders, orientations, colors, and creeds. The reason that we “identify ourselves” is to both understand ourselves and the world around us and collectively improve the human experience. Though the self might be an illusion, it’s a very important one. Your identity is important because it allows you to both connect with and separate yourself from the world around you. Individuality is important, especially if you’re on a team.
To “know yourself” isn’t really to discover everything that’s lurking in each corner of your psyche. To truly know yourself is to take each aspect of yourself that’s already there and to accept it, regardless of consequence. The self may be an illusion, but you won’t be able to understand that until you’ve accepted your “self”.
Don’t let my fancy philosophy rant fool you, I’m not as self-aware as I come off to be. That was a tough but necessary pill for me to swallow.
However, by realizing and accepting that, I’m becoming more self-aware. The more self-aware I become, the less necessity I have for my “self” because I’m more connected to the deeper sense of purpose that drives me every day. The more I accept my identity, the less I’m fighting it and the less it matters. That, in my understanding, the first step to peace and progress.
Whether it’s writing, martial arts, or just being a kind human being, there are plenty of worthwhile pursuits that I can be doing even without a resounding sense of self-mastery or self-awareness. If anything, these are the things I should be doing in order to pursue self-mastery and a connection with the heart of my consciousness.
There’s undeniably something magical about the human experience that can’t be explained with the labels that society and language have created for us. Maybe the disconnect that we have from that hidden magic is the real reason a deep sense of self-understanding is eluding us in the first place.
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What I’m Reading
I’ve just opened up Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as it was recommended to me in the book I just finished, Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. After stumbling upon a small collection of Hemingway novels recently, I’ve been diving deep into authors from the early 1900s. 2 chapters into Brave New World, I can say 1 thing: this story is freakin’ dark, but also really freakin’ relevant. Maybe after this one, I’ll go back to something a little bit more lighthearted, like a picture book or something.
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Wishing you the best,